In the United States, we celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow. In the Southeastern United States, that means most of us will gather around a table with the obligatory turkey centerpiece. The real meat of the meal is the multitude of dishes whose recipes begin with some variety of canned cream soup and culminate in crumbled, buttery crackers. I have painstakingly educated my “Yankee” husband not to utter the S-word at my mother’s Thanksgiving table; she only serves the best cornbread dressing and it is wrong to profane her work by calling it “stuffing.”
You’d think that all the preservatives and the three kinds of pie could create a barrier to any heartache dished out at this time of year. But they can’t. Close friends and family are experiencing sudden loss and illness this week, which means that my mind and heart have been consumed with futile attempts at comprehending, and even more futile plotting to somehow “fix” things.
Best-selling author Anne Lamott says the confounded belief that we can “fix” things is epidemic among the female species. That was one of her many messages that I scribbled down from a pew at the First Baptist Church in Decatur, Georgia on Monday night. Thankfully, the Georgia Center for the Book hosted Lamott to read from her new book Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.
Lamott says Help, Thanks, Wow was a complete accident. Her publisher encouraged her to write the book after she suggested that human beings only need three essential prayers when communicating honestly with God. The first is “Help me,” a prayer Lamott often used when she was first getting clean and sober 26 years ago. The second essential prayer is “Thanks.” Lamott says she uses this one a lot when she thinks of the “extraordinary” blessings of her life, including her son and three-year-old grandson. The final essential prayer is “Wow,” something she finds on her lips a lot when she witnesses the awe-inspiring terrain of her native Marin County, California.
Some of the things that Lamott talked about on Monday also appear in a recent New York Times piece, “The Prayer of an Unconventional Family.” She thanks Astrid Lindgren in the column, and on Monday night, she asked a young man–who had stepped to the microphone to ask her a question about becoming a professional writer–if he had read Pippi Longstocking. He hadn’t, but he was familiar with Harry Potter. When Lamott asked the boy what he was good at, he responded, “Dancing.” She told him that if he kept dancing and reading, he could be assured a good life.
Lamott–who says she is 58 years of age on the outside and 38 on the inside–says that aging means beginning to live without the people who are indispensable to you. That concept hung in my throat for a few solemn moments. However, in true Lamott style, she also shared the grace of getting older: you start to care so much less about the trivial things, like your hairstyle and the flaps of skin that used to rest smoothly on your face, but now drape your neck. “You learn by 50 that you’re never going to get anyone to do what you think is best,” she says. The church erupted in knowing laughter, which is what Anne Lamott calls “carbonated holiness.” Because we knew that if we just kept dancing and reading, we’d be assured a good life.